Ross Gay: So a lot of the people who would've left, it's not quite the same. I think a lot of the people we're chasing, they're not there in the same way. That big fancy whatever, faraway. Some of that has proven itself to be a little bit of an illusion maybe or it's just gone entirely.
Alex Chambers: That's Ross Gay about 50 years from now reflecting on how things changed. On this week's Inner States, the last two episodes of how to survive the future, a show about today from the perspective of tomorrow. First we'll hear from Chuck Thrawley about the pollution in Martinsville, Indiana, and how things improved in the 2020s. Then we hear from Ross Gay about decorating speed bumps and sharing fruit. That's coming up right after this.
Alex Chambers: Welcome to Inner States, I'm Alex Chambers. This week on the show I'm presenting the last two episodes of the first season of how to survive the future, a show about today from the perspective of tomorrow. Let's get right into it. This is episode four, Martinsville.
Chuck Thrawley: We are just right now probably 75 yards away from the building where the source of the contamination in the large downtown plume that bedeviled this town for a number of years.
Alex Chambers: So, if you can maybe introduce yourself.
Chuck Thrawley: Okay. I'm Chuck Thrawley. I guess I would be best described as a retired librarian. I am about two months away from my 80th birthday. Morgan County has been home for me now since 1989. We lived in Martinsville from 1989 to 2004, which was the period of time when the contamination started to become known and in the period of time before the water was being treated. We are just now in 2031 beginning to get fairly clean vapor readings coming out of the ground. When it was turned over as a super fun site for the Federal Government to come in and take over, it became kind of a bone of contention for several years on does it need cleaned up right away, what needs to be done.
Unidentified male voice: But we're going here to this alley, and this building we're looking at here with the yellow brick, that back of it is where the pumps and everything are, the DP which the PA used when they were doing that remediation work here.
Chuck Thrawley: It was a business that was on the bottom of the town square in the courthouse of the county seat and right across the street from it an industrial dry cleaners operated which spilled chemicals, tetrachloroethane I believe is the chemical name for it.
Unidentified male voice: Basically little well covers, metal well covers.
Unidentified male voice: Right over there is where the tanks still are and the pumps right here, in this building.
Unidentified male voice: Okay, right in this building. It's white cinder block.
Unidentified male voice: Yeah. Look here.
Chuck Thrawley: It breaks down into PCEs and TCEs which are some of those forever chemicals that you hear about. There were a number of 50 gallon drums when the company went bankrupt that were found in the basement. When they actually went out of business in '91 was when it became obvious how much had been spilled and was still there.
Unidentified male voice: How many would you say there are?
Unidentified male voice: There's at least 28. Because, see, they're all here, here, there, there, there.
Chuck Thrawley: When it started to became obvious that there was water contamination in primarily one of the wells that supplied the city, they had a water chest which showed the level of the PCE and the water was well above what was a safe level and people had been drinking it for some time at that point.
Unidentified male voice: And this is now residential.
Unidentified male voice: This is all residential here.
Unidentified male voice: It's a couple of houses with gardens right across the street from an old auto shop.
Chuck Thrawley: Various solutions were tried through the years.
Unidentified male voice: You'll see over here on the street. Some of these cars are parked over there and you'll see more of these wells.
Chuck Thrawley: Public information was always a little behind the curve as they were trying to get a handle on what they needed to do to be safe and meet Federal regulations and not to scare people, although not scaring people meant that people were drinking water they shouldn't have been drinking.
Chuck Thrawley: We lived about three blocks from the courthouse so we were within about four blocks of the master wear facility. We drank city water. We had a 100 year old two story home with a partial cross base and a partial basement. Water, of course, leaked in in times of flood. So we were being exposed both to whatever vapors were there at the time and whatever got mixed in with the ground water to run in and be pumped out through the sump pump. We had two daughters who were born in 1978 and 1981. They were both teenagers at the time when we were living in the exposure area.
Chuck Thrawley: One story of Lauren at about 13, there had been a stray cat running around our neighborhood that we kept saying couldn't come in the house. She had had a bunch of kittens in a falling down barn across the alley from our house. My wife and I came home from work to find these kittens inside the house and Lauren earnestly telling us that the mother kitten had brought them one at a time [LAUGHS], carried them to our back step and at this point they were already in the house. Her sister, who's three years younger, had just kind of nodded and said yes, she just showed up with them. It probably took four years [LAUGHS] for one of the girls to finally spill the beans that Lauren had gone over and fought the mother cat to get a hold of the kittens and bring them back to the house.
Chuck Thrawley: Lauren married a businessman who owned property in town, a number of rental properties. The two homes that they lived in during their marriage were at the edges of the plume. In 2003, when her son was born, she experienced a fairly rare condition called peripartum cardiomyopathy or postpartum periomyopathy which is a swelling of the heart. It's one of those things that there are almost no signs of during the pregnancy and within a few weeks of the pregnancy, she was in the hospital and potentially on a heart donor list, had heart failure at one point from it in the hospital. We had moved in with her husband briefly to help take care of Eli, our grandson, because her husband of course was overwhelmed with a new baby and a wife in the hospital who they were talking at one point of flying to St. Louis for a heart transplant.
Chuck Thrawley: Eventually she had a defibrillator implanted and was stabilized to the point that they felt like her heart had recovered a bit, that she was going to need the defibrillator and constant monitoring. She stood a little over 5ft tall and weighed at times slightly less than 100lb, so having a defibrillator implanted in her chest was a pretty big deal. So, for basically the next 12 years, she was monitored with that. The one thing that both of Eli's parents always did was to try to make him feel perfectly safe. After their divorce, Lauren and Eli lived with us for a few years, we had enough room and he got to spend time with his father. He got to live with us out in the woods. His father made sure that he was the first one in our addition to have his own dirt bike when he was about seven [LAUGHS].
Chuck Thrawley: When he started riding it up and down the gravel lane in the area, within about three weeks, other kids started getting dirt bikes. I know people talk about the dreaded "they come back," but it was nice to be able to help and to work with her getting back on her feet again and eventually when she did find work that was substantial to where she felt like she could maintain a home, Edwin made sure that she would have an apartment.
Alex Chambers: Can you establish who Edwin is?
Chuck Thrawley: Eli's father. Edwin had one of the better houses that he had them in for a while. When I found out more about the plume, it was in an area near a ball field that was another hot spot. We were never exactly sure whether living in the contamination area had anything to do with her medical problems. It's not something that I have found listed as a result of PCE contamination but you always have to wonder what might have. There was some suspicion that she might have beginning symptoms of MS, had had the defibrillator replaced one time at that point and the battery was going down, had had an ablation performed in her heart because she was starting to get weird rhythms and palpitations. In the surgery to remove that defibrillator and to make it possible for her to have MRIs to diagnose more of what was going on, an artery or vein in her heart was ruptured.
Chuck Thrawley: She was on the operating table for over eight hours before she died. Again, whether that was a direct result of the contamination, I'll never be able to say conclusively. It left our grandson, Eli, with his father who is blind and diabetic. He does have a very successful business but a number of his rental properties were over the plume. One group was going to door to door, finding out what people knew, what they were concerned about. It's a hard slog sometimes in organizing and I have developed a real admiration for people who can lay of the case out and get people to work together because I think once people understand, first that there's a problem, second that the problem is not being effectively addressed and, three that the only way to get it addressed is to make it important to the people who have the resources to do something about it.
Chuck Thrawley: Luckily there were initially a few concerned people who had technical expertise, who kept it on the front burner. By 2020, the city government was actually trying very hard to try to do something, that, in conjunction with the EPA, would protect people.
Alex Chambers: Tell me about Eli.
Chuck Thrawley: He is my one grandson and he is the most amazing grandson one could hope to have. As he and Lauren moved on, he became interested in magic and I had tried to get him interested in guitar off and on through the years and he had played a little bit of harmonica with me and I think in seventh grade, 13, 14 years ago at least now [LAUGHS], but he used the guitar as a prop in a magic trick, playing some blues licks and by his sophomore year auditioned with the jazz band at the high school. From early on, he was focusing on wanting to get into Berklee School of Music in Boston. That was a few really scary years as he finished up his high school and got the auditions.
Alex Chambers: So what did he do?
Chuck Thrawley: He got into Berklee[LAUGHS] and he stuck with it and he is currently teaching a couple of adjunct courses. He is staying fairly busy with local music groups, doing studio work with them and has continued to compose.
Alex Chambers: Is there a particular moment recently that you've gotten to see him really be the fullest south that's made you feel proud?
Chuck Thrawley: One of the musicians he studied with at Berklee had passed through and played at the Chatterbox in Indianapolis last year and just going to see him working as a pro, some place I can drive up to, because my eyesight's not what it used to be. Ten years ago I would've driven in a heartbeat [LAUGHS] to Chicago to see him. But to see him was just as much a delight as I could possibly hope to have.
Chuck Thrawley: I'm kind of a glass-half-empty kind of guy and the glass isn't much to speak of either. I'm actually feeling much better right now about Martinsville. You can feel it here today. The downtown is fairly busy right now even at this time of the morning, a lot of people coming in and out. They finished up the breakfast rush at a couple of the restaurants, people are still walking around with their coffee, the people from the courthouse. The workers are coming back in with their coffee and the day spa for nails and various exercise and the people in activities has been in the business for about 12 years now, still seems to be doing just fine, see a lot of people coming in and out of there, it's right across from the courthouse entrance. It's been a long time coming and still a ways to go but it's happening and the people are better off for it.
Alex Chambers: I have maybe just one more question and it's about Lauren and the health struggles that she had and you losing her and the pollution. You said a couple times that there is really no way to know to what degree the pollution may or may not have played into her health problems. I'm curious, if you could know if there was a direct link there, would you want to know that? Would it make it better to know that? Would it make it worse?
Chuck Thrawley: I think to actually know that the irresponsible acts of a bad businessman dumping poison into the city in which he was doing business, was directly responsible for losing her, would give me a focus for rage but I'm not sure that it would be fruitful. I regret every day that Lauren's not here to see what a fine young man she raised and how much he's inherited his mother's heart.
Alex Chambers: That was how to survive the future, episode four, Martinsville. Here's episode five of how to survive the future with Ross Gay on Bloomington's near west side about half the century for now.
Alex Chambers: Could you introduce yourself?
Ross Gay: I'm Ross Gay. My name's Ross Gay. I used to teach at Indiana University for a bunch of years and I've just lived in this neighborhood since 2007, more than half a century. I never thought I'd say it but I've lived in this town for 67 years, it's mad [LAUGHS]. But anyway, I taught up there for a bunch of years, probably almost 40 years and I've been retired for couple decades or so now but I still keep writing books and I'm busy round here. There's a lot to do round here.
Ross Gay: There's all these lineages of all these gardens. So you'll notice that in this garden, there's going to be stuff that's planted in the next garden because we know each other and then just when we're dropping stuff off, we're like, "Do you have seeds for that?" I love that. Then it moves and then the next one, so there's a kind of migration of plants through the neighborhood in that way of just people, and we were talking about this earlier, sharing what they love, tasting what they love and then being like, "Hey, can I have a little bit of that?" And when you see that, of course, "Oh, you loved that, didn't you? Here, take some, you can grow some too." Not suggesting that I don't want you to take anymore of mine [LAUGHS].
Ross Gay: Sometimes I can get pretty excited about some of these things. I'm always aware of being like, let's all grow all of everything so we can all share everything. So that's one of the things, like watching the way that the plants have kind of moved through the neighborhood. I remember seeing it, at some point, someone was growing sweet potatoes at the end of the block. Not everyone knew that you could grow sweet potatoes but eventually a lot of people knew and everyone's growing sweet potatoes. Maybe not everyone, but a lot of people are growing sweet potatoes. And then there's also that thing of where some people are just really good at tomatoes. Not all of us. I'm not good at tomatoes. Whatever that means.
Ross Gay: We so just know that and so that person is good at tomatoes. I happen to be real lucky with garlic. "I've got your garlic, you do my tomato." It just works. It's kind of funny that we ever had to be shown that again. One of the things that's been really beautiful to me is that there were and there still are some standing, but a lot of these Norway maples, I think they are, the ones that are really beautiful and they grow big but they fall apart. People were just replacing them with fruit trees. It was just what it was and not only that, there was a kind of collaborative coordinated effort to fill up the neighborhood with the fruit trees. So there's all these plantings around town and by now some of those trees are gone but some of those trees are really productive 50 year old, 60 year old apple trees, persimmon and pawpaws and choke cherries and many other fruits trees.
Ross Gay: There are some nut trees, hazelnut bushes and some of those nut trees, not hazelnuts, but some don't produce for years and years and so those trees are there that they were putting in way back then in 2020 or 2018 or whatever. Those nut trees are now making tons of nuts and that's not just this neighborhood, that's other neighborhoods. So there's really never a shortage. They make so much fruit, so many nuts that people always are trying to figure out how to distribute the abundance of nuts. There are all these people who are just learning and keep on learning how to help the trees survive, help the trees manage the differing conditions. Then those people, inevitably, as we do, share their wisdom and that just moves around, so there's this amazing kind of organic collective of folks who are just kind of around.
Ross Gay: It's not like there's a list. You can kind of basically knock on someone's door and be like, "Hey, I see these spots are showing up on my trees, can you show me how to do that?" And someone's going to know. If they don't know, the next person knows. It feels really lucky. Of course, as that happens, you get to know people. I knew my neighbors but I didn't know them like I know them now because it wasn't an automatic part of my life that we were giving and exchanging stuff. Sometimes we would. We have dear friends that we've been friends with now for 70 years, so those folks, we were always kind of just sharing stuff, but a lot of people, I didn't have occasion to do that, for whatever reason.
Ross Gay: Back then we didn't all talk to each other all the time but now it's like if you have 100lb of pecans, you've kind of got to talk to your neighbors [LAUGHS] to give it away. So, now we know each other different. Trees teach us everything but they teach you patience. With these fruit trees, right when they go in, they look like little bits of nothing and then five years down the road, oh, they're making a little fruit and then 10, 15 years down the road, they're making a lot of fruit and those trees making fruit are 100% showing us how to get closer to each other.
Ross Gay: We do a lot of sharing with those guys.
Ross Gay: Remember how it was always the thing that you wanted to escape where you came from. It was just such a thing, you had to leave. It's a little different now. A lot of the people who would have left, are not leaving. It's not quite the same. I think a lot of the people we're chasing, it's not there in the same way. Big fancy whatever, faraway. Some of that has proven itself to be a little bit of an illusion maybe or it's just gone entirely. All of these kind of financial crashes and everything, it's just on a basic level, the precariousness of that world, a world where the illusion started to become evident to people. All of the kind of various collapses of these paper things that we exchange. Kids started to see, there's just something phony about that [LAUGHS] and especially when they're in a place where their needs are being met and they're in a kind of network of people who are actually deeply invested in having their needs met, truly met, meaning this kind of thing.
Ross Gay: With those guys, it's just part of their thing. They drop by and kind of check on me and also I get to check on them. I think kids see that that thing about being in a community where people are just kind of checking on you, that's just part of life, checking on your neighbors. People of my generation had this thing of constantly, constantly working toward something that was not ever going to satisfy them. I can remember that, very much, being a young person and thinking I had to chase this thing and the only thing I think I actually wanted was something like security and care and community and belonging and the chase was not actually going to end up in that. The chase was about the chase or something. I feel like kids are kind of witnessing some of that sadness of some of their elders who were doing that and also the wreckage of doing that which is so different than when people are doing this other thing, this kind of smaller scale thing, which becomes kind of bigger scale when there's groups of people doing it together.
Ross Gay: So, I just feel like people were able to recognize that there was a lot of lonely working towards something that had nothing to do with anything they cared about, whereas some of these kids are realizing, "Oh, maybe I'll stay close to home and maybe I'll participate in this whole kind of neighborhood, this community thing where we spend more time growing food, spend more time cooking with each other and spend more time repairing what we have, spend more time learning the songs that my parents sang." That's a thing and a lot of these kids, it's amazing, a lot of these kids, they drop by and they want to know the stories. They really want to know the stories.
Ross Gay: I remember when we were kids, we didn't give a shit about our parents' stories, not across the board, but we weren't encouraged to really know our folk's stories. We were encouraged [LAUGHS] to know the stories of famous people. We were encouraged to know the stories of bad stuff and not the stories of the people that we love and who kind of brought us here. I think of how much time we wasted [LAUGHS], not to get on a thing but just to think about how much time we wasted thinking about what this or that person wore to some award show or something or thinking about the award show, or thinking about the awards. We spent a lot of time doing that. These guys don't give a shit, they don't even know what it is.They're doing something else and it's really beautiful to watch.
Alex Chambers: I know getting around is a little trickier now. Do you feel up for walking a bit around the neighborhood with me? Do you feel up to that, maybe telling some of those stories?
Ross Gay: Yes, definitely.
Alex Chambers: Cool, alright, let's do it.
Ross Gay: There are a bunch of things that, just walking down this block, you can see this house here that has all the rain barrels and the big old cisterns. Every house now has a huge water catchment situation because you can't count on the rain in the same way. Rain barrels were a thing but then someone was thinking, maybe we need to do a 500 gallon thing. It was weird. It was kind of weird, what were they prepared for but they were preparing for what was coming.
Alex Chambers: What we're in.
Ross Gay: Yes, what we're in and sure enough that person helped a couple of people out too like that. And then, other people thought it was a good idea and now we all have that and that's just one of the ways we kind of make sure it's okay because it can be rough. The other thing I was thinking, I forgot that this house right here, and this is weird, I don't know if you want to talk about this on your radio show but they were the first people to start doing the composting toilets and it was illegal. When that happened, that was illegal and they had some kind of weird thing where they had to hide this toilet situation, I remember.
Ross Gay: We kind of can tell, because sometimes I'd be out in the garden late at night and I would see, I'd be thinking, wait a second, and I also like to piss in the garden. I always have but that's not what they were doing, I figured. I didn't want to get into it with them but then eventually we were talking and I said, "Is that a composting toilet?" And they said it was. They swore me to secrecy and I swore. It seems crazy now to think that we were letting all that go to waste. It took a little while at first, of course, because the city had these regulations and this and that, but eventually enough people were doing it illegally and then when certain things kind of started to fall apart, it was just an obvious thing to do.
Ross Gay: You didn't really have a big choice and now it's not been that long, it's been about 40 years since that's been kind of pretty much everyone who's doing that but to think back before that, it just seems the infrastructure that was required to get rid of what we now know is a resource. Think about how much time we spend with that. It sucks when it's cold [LAUGHS]. It sucks but that's another thing but I totally forgot about that until we passed this house and this is where it started. This is where it started.
Alex Chambers: What is that, that sound?
Ross Gay: That's a bird [LAUGHS]. Is that what you wanted to know?
Alex Chambers: That's really helpful.
Ross Gay: What kind of bird?
Alex Chambers: That's what I was wondering.
Ross Gay: I don't know what kind of bird that is. A lot of the birds from back when are not here as much but that is one of the ones that's just kind of stuck around. Someone around here would know that.
Ross Gay: When certain things were collapsing and what year was that? It was in the 2020s, sometime, that supply chain stuff got really disrupted.
Alex Chambers: Oh, yes, right, right. The first pandemic?
Ross Gay: Stuff got really changed and people had different relationships to work and it does feel like there are all of these things afoot that were just, my thing is not exactly my thing, that my thing is a little bit your thing and so then those kind of boundaries about things like "my" yard or "my" stuff got a little bit fuzzier, it got a little bit fuzzier. It also was around that same time that we started that thing where that one house that was falling down, that we kind of spent a little time working on it and it just became a share and we had lots of stuff that we just shared in the neighborhood that we put in there. So there was just this thought, oh, okay, we probably don't all need a lawn mower, we can figure that out.
Ross Gay: We probably don't all need X, Y and Z and, first it was like a tool share and then it was all kinds of other shares and seed share and library and it kind of built up but also I think probably the ways that there used to be unoccupied houses in neighborhoods and they'd just sit there, while people would be sleeping under bridges, remember that?
Alex Chambers: I do.
Ross Gay: Hard to believe and I don't know exactly how that happened but at some point, hoarding that resource, of space, of shelter, it just stopped making sense.
Ross Gay: It's this one. Folks were going to move into this house, I remember it was pretty close to the time that I was moving here, so 2010-ish and they were starting to move in and they were getting their stuff in and evidently they were hearing that this house kind of felt alive. I remember them coming over one night, just kind of hanging out, and they thought it was ridiculous that they even thought it but it felt kind of like the house was alive, because there's a graveyard right nearby too, so they were kind of wondering is it haunted and this and that, but they just kept on unpacking and doing their thing and it's an old house too, it's very old, 1898 house. This neighborhood a lot of these houses are from 1898, 1900, 1898 and I think they used to be houses for quarry workers. There was a quarry right nearby. This is limestone country.
Alex Chambers: Right.
Ross Gay: Anyway, if I remember this right, one day she was sitting down and they noticed a little piece of plaster had flecked off the wall and they noticed that aliveness thing, it was a sound and she thought, I can hear something. Something broke off the wall and they kind of put their ear to the wall and there was a sound, a real sound. So they just opened it a little bit more to the sound which sounded like breathing or something and they opened it a little bit more and it was completely full of bees. It was completely full with bees. It was this whole huge wall and they didn't crack the wall all the way open but they could see, from where they could see, there were hundreds of thousands of bees, but not only that, they could see that the inside of the walls looked like a creature.
Ross Gay: It looked like a whole creature, with lungs and stuff and they looked inside of it for a little bit and then they just patched it up. They lived with the bees. It was amazing. That was a thing, when that got around and people were like, "Oh, you could just live with them." That was something. Nice house too, it's standing up real good.
Alex Chambers: Yes, it looks like it.
Ross Gay: It's standing real good. The honey house.
Alex Chambers: The honey house, yes.
Ross Gay: Anyway I was just sort of thinking about the ways we just had forgotten how to care for stuff and a part of that forgetting how to care was not recognizing how much just growing in the cracks and the asphalt was medicine and we're trying to eliminate all this, all this care the earth's trying to do for us. We're getting better at kind of listening, I feel like.
Alex Chambers: Yes
Ross Gay: Mulberry trees are still doing real good around here. It's just they never have a problem [LAUGHS], they never seem to have a problem. Even before there was such a kind of concerted effort to put fruit trees in everywhere, it was always easy to find mulberries. You can always find those black cap raspberries too, those black raspberries.
Alex Chambers: Yes.
Ross Gay: They kind of move move around real nice like that too, and they're easy to take cuttings from and move around. That's a real friendly fruit.
Alex Chambers: Yes, who knew, times would be good?
Ross Gay: I know, I know that hard times could be good times too.
Alex Chambers: I just remember so much fear.
Ross Gay: Yes, I know. There was that sort of automatic capitalist scare city framework and it was like, it is impossible that there is enough and we are all going to starve, and we are all going to die, or we might get together and figure it out [LAUGHS], we might do that. If you just get the fuck out of our way, we might be able to actually be like, "Oh, alright, you can do this, I can do that, we can do this, let's do that instead. Let's choose to work on some stuff together as opposed to getting guns." But things being hard together is so much better than things being okay alone, that's the thing. Okay alone is lonely but hard together is kind of like, alright, it's hard and it's kind of fun. It can be rough and it can also be really, really lovely to see how built in it is to us to care for one another. It's really beautiful to see.
Alex Chambers: That was how to survive the future, episode five, near west side. I produced this series with Allison Quantz. Allison also came up with the title. How to Survive the Future was produced in partnership with Indiana Humanities with funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and with further support from the Writer's Guild at Bloomington. We have music by Airport People and Ramón Monrás-Sender. Special thanks to Chuck Thrawley and Ross Gay for imagining themselves into the future. You can listen to all five episodes of How to Survive the Future in a podcast app near you. And you've been listening to Inner States from WFIU in Bloomington, Indiana. Until next week, I'm Alex Chambers. Thanks for listening.